It's not really fair to call Mr. Oppel's novel steampunk, because
nothing in it runs on steam. Rather, it belongs to a peculiar genre
of nostalgic science fiction which recalls the mix of monumental
technology and Victorian society that appears in seminal authors like
Verne and Wells.
It's odd to me to encounter modern storytellers attempting to recreate
that atmosphere. Those early authors were telling fantastic tales of
the future, while a modern entrant like Mr. Oppel writes a nostalgic
tale of the way the future used to be---much the same, for example, as
movies like "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" or "The League of
"Skybreaker" is a well done example of this particular microgenre,
with all the little touches that matter, like subtly different
names---hydrogen is "hydrium", gasoline is "Aruba Fuel"---and
Here-Be-Dragons-type geography like the perpetual storm known as "the
Devil's Fist". Mr. Oppel's world still has mysterious frontiers where
Man is not welcome, and eccentric aristocratic inventors who retreat
to their hidden fortresses to work in secrecy.
The book is steeped in the sensibilities of golden age adventure
stories. There are the lordly heros (forget the humble backgrounds of
some---they are all clearly ubermensch), the loyal servants, the
untrustworthy scalliwags and even the savage beasts.
More than anything else, the story reminded me of "Treasure Island",
though of course not in the particulars. But the singsong manner in
which the narrator describes his own naivete is the same, along with
the strange detachment that gives beautifully clear snapshots of
important details for the reader to remember. The characters are
painted in vivid primary colors, with the exception of the narrator,
who is left almost blank for readers to project themselves into his
Mr. Oppel's story is a brilliant skein of storytelling art, a spare
crystalline structure of pirates, love interests, lessons learned, and
apt places for the use of the word "fantastical". No detail is
introduced to the reader which will not be important later, and indeed
the book practically invites you to guess its unfolding plot.
The arrogant are delivered comeuppances right on schedule, and every
advance is met by a matching setback as the hero and his opponents
trade the advantage back and forth. There are needless action
sequences early on, which serve to introduce the adversaries who will
be important at the end (and, of course, keep the audience
entertained). There is even a classic random encounter en route to
the mysterious ghost ship in the sky.
My main complaint is, in fact, its very perfection as a
"story"---while it's a nice story, it ultimately doesn't really have
anything to say. There are no thoughts of morality, no character
growth, no real lasting impact at all. We are treated to a
cinematographic tale of danger and adventure and at the end of the
book it's just over. Nancy Drew solves the case and we put the book
back on the shelf.
Maybe it's just that I like to work harder as a reader, but I found
this book beautiful but empty, like a jeweled trinket. It would be a
wonderful young adult novel, or good for an adult who wants to lose
themselves in nostalgia for a bit, but in the end, it is a work of
form, rather than of substance.